Confusion and ghosts of the past plague Toulon as Mike Ford exits

Toulon won three Champions Cup titles in the space of four years. David Rogers/Getty Images

Just Mike Ford knows how long he ever thought he was going to last in the Var. Until this week? Next month? Next year? Frankly, he did well to still be in the front row seat last weekend when the Toulon charabanc headed north for the Massif Central and what was to prove a crushing defeat at the hands of his club's nemesis. It is no shame that Ford will not be in charge when Toulon face Toulouse in Marseille this weekend. After all, he was never regarded by owner Mourad Boudjellal as a permanent solution in whose mind he was only ever keeping the seat warm for Fabien Galthie.

Boudjellal has coveted the former world player of the year virtually since his appointment of Diego Dominguez to succeed Bernard Laporte as manager. That was almost two-and-a-half years ago and kicked off a period of hiatus and, dare I suggest decline, that has been allowed to run ever since. The Toulon owner's obsession throughout that period with securing Galthie's services has, in part, been to blame.

The three-time European champions who reached seven major finals in their four-season pomp have become also-rans despite a squad of A-listers complete with huge wage bill. Gone is much of the team's intelligence and heart. Jonny Wilkinson and Bakkies Botha have never been replaced while Matt Giteau, Juan Smith and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe are slowly succumbing to injury and advancing in years. Ma'a Nonu is a world-beater but only on a consistent level when wearing black while Bryan Habana has only rarely shown glimpses of the talent that made him the world's outstanding wing.

Boudjellal's appointment of Dominguez, on Laporte's recommendation, proved calamitous. And in fairness to Ford it was he whose presence helped expedite his departure. The former Bath boss had arrived on the Cote d'Azur a few weeks into this season and had impressed Boudjellal. The Englishman's work ethic and no-nonsense approach was in stark contrast to Dominguez's who was presiding over a management team riven by personality clashes and conflicting ambitions. Jacques Delmas and Marc Dal Maso were each at one another's throats.

With everything around him coming apart -- defeats at home to Brive in the league and Saracens in Europe -- Boudjellal recognised Ford was in the best position to restore order. It also suited Ford who had asked the owner to expand his role. In the space of a fortnight both Dominguez and Delmas were sacked.

Yet even then Ford's period in charge was bound to be measured in weeks or, if he was lucky, months. On the pitch, his most influential playmaker Matt Giteau was sidelined with a broken ankle while, off it, negotiations with Galthie were already underway.

Galthie's stealth that had kept him beneath the radar for almost two years had been caused by his ongoing legal dispute with Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad who had appealed the court award made to his former head coach as a result of his sacking in December 2014. Being seen by an appeal judge to be back in work and on lucrative remuneration was not the message Galthie would have wanted to communicate.

That's probably why, save for a mischievous schoolboy-like smile, Galthie declined to elaborate on his Toulon negotiations when I spoke to him last summer in Rio where he was working for French television on the Olympic Sevens tournament. What he did volunteer though was his admiration of the Aviva Premiership -- "The best league in Europe," he said -- and even that Bath had been in contact inquiring about his availability following their sacking of the same Mike Ford. The outstanding legal matters in Montpellier put paid to that going any further.

By January this year, though, Galthie had been paid out and Altrad's legal fight exhausted. Cue the image that, in my mind at least, crystallised Ford's future.

Sunday January 15 and an hour or so before kick-off at the Stade Mayol. It was the fifth round pool match against Sale. Galthie was on TV duty again and left his perch high up in the main tribune to greet Dal Maso who was down on the pitch. It was a warm embrace that told of a long friendship while hinting at future collaboration. The English duo, Ford and Richard Cockerill, looked on.

This Sunday for the crucial match against Toulouse, which as has become tradition has been relocated to Marseille's Velodrome, Richard Cockerill will take charge. Perhaps unlike Ford, Cockerill will have read the signs even before he arrived on a sojourn following his sacking at Leicester. His time as a player at Clermont Auvergne and regular trips over with the Tigers in European competition served him well in learning the idiosyncrasies of French rugby. Cockerill also has a working knowledge of the language which went down well with Boudjellal who, despite the fact Toulon had just half-a-dozen Frenchman in Sunday's starting XV at Clermont, prefers the mother tongue.

In short, Boudjellal has decided that going forward a French management team is best. The English-speaker within it, and the international glue between the Anglo-Saxon and Gallic dressing-room constituencies, remains Tom Whitford. The blond-haired 45-year-old is the team manager and unsung hero in Toulon's success over the past decade. Cambridge-educated and a decent player for Richmond in his time, he's fluent in French and though he may appear to be an adjunct to the Toulon team those who speak from within the dressing-room attest to the significance of his role.

For now, Cockerill's job is to keep Toulon in the first six of the Top 14 and ensure them Champions Cup rugby next season. Expectations of getting to Paris for the Top 14 final on June 4, let alone lifting the Bouclier, appear to have faded though with three of their four remaining league matches at home a home barrage tie is a realistic target.

Either way, Cockerill knows his next job awaits in Edinburgh. For Ford, on the other hand, his C.V. is getting sharpened before being dropped on chief executives' desks across the continent's three main leagues.